Review: MAJOR LEAGUE (1989)
What better film to pick for the Play to the Whistle Blogathon than one that features a down-on-its-luck team defy the odds and take down a much stronger foe? No, not that one. No, not that one either.
No, I’m talking about the 1989 baseball classic, MAJOR LEAGUE. Written and directed by David S. Ward (best known for writing THE STING (1973) and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993)), the film tells the stirring and emotional story of a band of underdogs who....
...oh who am I kidding. The film is an absolute riot and easily one of the best sports comedies of all time.
The plot is fairly simple: Rachel Phelps, a former exotic dancer, inherits the Cleveland Indians baseball team from her dead husband. Not wanting to live out her days in Cleveland, she hatches a plot to field the worst possible team she can, because if overall attendance drops below a certain threshold, the league will allow her to relocate the team to Miami, Florida.
And boy, what a team they put together. I think the Cleveland Indians of MAJOR LEAGUE should go down as the most colorful sports team in film history. Every major character (player or not) leaves a lasting impression and is perfectly cast:
Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), the worn down veteran who sees this as his last chance at being a winner;
Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), the former convict with a blazing fastball and undiagnosed vision problems (and who helped make the song "Wild Thing" into a sports anthem);
Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes), a blazing runner who needs to have his talent catch up a bit with his showboating;
Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert), a slugger from Cuba who prays to the god Jobu because he, "No can hit curveball. Straight ball, I hit very much. But with curveball...bats are afraid."
and of course, beleaguered Indians announcer Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker), who chugs Jack Daniels during the game and popularized the call, "Juuuuuuust a bit outside!"
Another key to the success of this film is its setting. To fully appreciate the era in which MAJOR LEAGUE was made, we must travel back to an alternate dimension where the Cleveland Browns (American football) were good, while the Cleveland Indians were a complete mess. Cleveland itself has earned a reputation here in the US for being a...well...a dump, and the opening credits, which are set to Randy Newman's song "Burn On" sets the stage perfectly.
Added context for any non-US readers: the Cuyahoga River is a major river that runs through the city of Cleveland and that has famously caught fire a number of times due to pollution.
Smartly, the vast majority of the movie is spent either on the field or in the clubhouse, allowing the rag-tag group to bounce off of each other. Old-timer pitcher and devout Christian Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross) tries to start a religious war with Cerrano, prompting one of the famous exchanges in the film:
Cerrano: "Jesus. I like him very much. But he no help with curveball." Harris: "Are you trying to say Jesus Christ can't hit a curveball?"
Likewise, overpriced free-agent Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), who is more interested in life after baseball than actually playing it, starts a feud with rookie Vaughn and later with Taylor for a lack of effort. He also has a hilarious run in with Cerrano during spring training, with the big Cuban taking one of Dorn's golf club covers for his bat.
The on-field action is surprisingly good. While no one will confuse many of the stars of the film for real baseball players (Charlie Sheen was at one point offered a scholarship to play college baseball, and his ability to throw a decent fastball helps sell several of the scenes), the filmmakers do a good job of editing around the stars to make it fairly convincing.
Side note: I was amused to find out that the guy who plays the Indians' nemesis, Yankee slugger Clu Haywood, actually served as the real Pittsburgh Pirates' pitching coach for a time.
The plot of the film plays out as you would largely expect. The team, which starts off terrible, begins to improve. In response, Phelps begins taking away things like transportation (first they are downgraded to a plane that is literally duct taped together and then later to a bus) and therapy equipment like a working whirlpool (which is solved by putting a motor boat engine inside). Eventually the team gets wind of her overall plan to lose and decides that the only course of action left is to win the pennant outright.
Which of course, they do. Surprising? No. But that's not really the point of the film. The point is how they do it, and MAJOR LEAGUE's version of the cliche "winning it all" scene is one of my favorites. It ties together a number of threads that were dropped earlier, particularly a scene where Jake Taylor is alone in the stadium and imagines does the famous Babe Ruth "calling his shot" moment and the fact that Taylor's knees are bad. At the same time it doesn't take the obvious route of Taylor crushing that game-winning home run.
If I had to find fault with the movie, the only place I can really point to is in a side plot involving Taylor and his ex girlfriend Lynn Wells (Rene Russo). Now, I've confessed my irrational dislike for Russo on Twitter, but here I can't even really blame that. It's just that this side plot is terribly unnecessary.
Taylor takes Vaughn and Hays out for a celebratory dinner to kick off the season, and he spots Wells having dinner with another guy (who turns out to be Tom, her fiancé). He then proceeds to, well, stalk her through the movie, including a scene where he crashes a party at Tom's place. Eventually, when he busts in on HER place, they end up sleeping together, and eventually, during the celebration at the end of the pennant-winning game, she reveals that she has left Tom. Because of course, that's what happens in these kind of movies.
But who cares? I know I didn't...and Taylor's behavior is at times obsessive to the point of being creepy. You know what though, that's not the point of the movie, and their plot doesn't intrude too much on the film to be damaging. At worst, the scenes between Taylor and Wells amount more to "ok, time to go grab a drink/snack" when you're watching at home.
Finally, since this is Listening To Film after all, a brief word about the music. I say brief, because there really isn't much to say about it. Being a late 80s film, there are a number of pop songs used throughout the film, most notably "Wild Thing" by X, which is used as Ricky Vaughn's entry song. For the rest, James Newton Howard turns in a score that is so unabashedly 80s with prominent synth and rock instrumentation. Most famous is probably the track "Pennant Fever," which plays over a montage of the Indians slowly improving and gaining ground in the standings.
Newton Howard also wrote a love theme for the film that, again because it was the 80s, was turned into a song for the end credits. The song, called "Most Of All You" and performed by Bill Medley, is again both wonderfully and cringingly pure 80s ballad. It's one of those songs that, if you grew up in the 80s, you might recognize but not be really sure why.
Ultimately, the songs and the music do work well for the film, because all are part of a pure 80s time capsule of a movie. It's been a long time since the Cleveland Indians played in Municipal Stadium (affectionately called the Municipal Pig Lot by folks where I grew up). These days, they are competitive, and have been for most years since the mid 90s. But maybe, just maybe, they have the ghosts of Jake Taylor, Ricky Vaughn, and Pedro Cerrano to thank for that success.
MAJOR LEAGUE isn't a movie that will move you to tears or keep you on the edge of your seat. But it will make you laugh out loud, smile, and have a great time for an hour and a half or so. And isn't that really what movies are for?